Since the great minds of psychology turned their attention towards what makes people thrive, a recurring theme has been human’s inherent desire for growth. Self-actualization is the theory that this desire is fundamental to human nature, rather than a pastime or a hobby.
The theory is popular not only in the field of psychology but in all forms of self-development. Away from the aisles of self-help books and blog posts, self-actualization is what most people seek when they begin to look at their own potential and ability to grow.
In this article, we’ll cover the history of self-actualization in psychology, its full meaning, common misconceptions, and what it means to be self-actualized. Then, we’ll provide a guide on how you can achieve self-actualization, inspired by the pioneer of the theory itself.
Self-actualization according to Abraham Maslow
Abraham Maslow, the psychologist best known for his theory of the hierarchy of needs, is a key thinker behind the theory of self-actualization. In his 1954 book, Motivation and Personality, Maslow noted the difficulty in accurately and definitively describing self-actualization. He wrote:
For the purposes of this discussion, it may be loosely described as the full use and exploitation of talents, capacities, potentialities, etc. Such people seem to be fulfilling themselves and to be doing the best that they are capable of doing, reminding us of Nietzsche’s exhortation, ‘Become what thou art!’ They are people who have developed or are developing to the full stature of which they are capable. These potentialities may be either idiosyncratic or species-wide.
Another way of phrasing this is that self-actualization is the desire for growth. For Maslow, self-actualization was the top of the hierarchy of needs, it’s the pinnacle of psychological development. Actualization is defined as “to realize or make real”. Therefore, self-actualization is manifesting the fullest essence of who you are at the core — the “self” behind all limitations.
Maslow’s most significant impact was to expand the breadth of psychology, away from the pathological, such as mental illness, into the humanistic approach of thriving individuals. His belief was that “striving for excellence” is a universal experience. At the same time, he acknowledged many people avoid the path of growth due to its painful nature, with many people afraid of their own potential. It’s an uncommon path — Maslow estimated less than 1% of the human population reaches a level of self-actualization.
Kurt Goldstein and Carl Rogers: theories of self-actualized people
Other prominent thinkers who have shaped the concept of self-actualization include Kurt Goldstein and Carl Rogers. Maslow, who was also inspired by the likes of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Alfred Adler, acknowledged Goldstein’s theory of self-actualization in his own model.
Goldstein believed all organisms, from animals to plants and humans, have this innate pull to actualize. Carl Rogers, on the other hand, viewed self-actualization as an ongoing process of aligning behavior with the true self. This process, unfolding over time, creates harmony between a person’s self-image and their “ideal self”. In other words, self-actualization is achieved when someone’s vision of who they would like to be is aligned with their actual behavior.
In terms of self-development, the nuances between theories don’t matter so much. In basic terms, Goldstein viewed actualization as integral to organisms — think of the metaphor of a plant, bursting from a seed and reaching through the soil to grow towards the sun. Rogers saw this as an ongoing “negotiation” between who someone wants to become and who they are, whilst Maslow saw it as a desire or psychological need.
For context, I feel spiritual growth is closer aligned to Goldstein’s view, that the true self within everyone wants to be known and expressed. Maslow’s work continues to be the most influential, however, and most modern approaches to self-actualization take Maslow’s view: self-actualization is the top level of a pyramid-like hierarchy, that only a select few achieve.
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
To better understand Maslow’s self-actualization theory, let’s look at his hierarchy of needs in further detail. For Maslow, this desire for self-actualization and pursuit of growth followed the fulfillment of basic needs. It sits at the top of the pyramid, and all other needs must be met before an individual moves in this direction.
The basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, from bottom to top, are:
- Physiological needs: The first level needs are required for survival. They include food, water, shelter, breathing, nutrition, etc.
- Security and safety needs: Once these needs are met, second-level needs include financial stability, health, and overall wellness.
- Social Needs: The third level pertains to love, acceptance, and belonging. Think relationships, community, family, social groups, etc.
- Esteem needs: The fourth level relates to respect and appreciation. Once other needs are met, people tend to gravitate towards being recognized for their value.
Maslow’s five-stage model is split into deficiency needs and growth needs. The four levels above all come under deficiency needs, that is, they arise due to a lack, and must be met in order to avoid suffering or discomfort. Self-actualization needs, at the top of the pyramid, is a growth need — those that move towards a goal, not away from suffering or lack.
The hierarchy of needs is a loose framework and not a rigid model. Maslow’s degree of relative satisfaction explains the levels in terms of percentages. “For the sake of illustration,” he wrote, “it is as if the average citizen is satisfied perhaps 85 percent in his physiological needs, 70 percent in his safety needs, 50 percent in his love needs, 40 percent in his self-esteem needs, and 10 percent in his self-actualization needs.”
This points to a common misunderstanding with the model: it’s not that all needs at every lower level have to be met, all of the time, in order to move up the hierarchy. In fact, Maslow noted that for some, the desire for creative fulfillment may override even basic needs.
Peak experiences and self-transcendence
Later in his life, Maslow started to explore the “farther reaches of human nature.” He introduced another level to this model which is often overlooked: self-transcendence. Another growth need, self-transcendence is the desire to move beyond a sense of individuality, into one of service to others and connection to the wider cosmos.
Maslow had concerns about his model. In a journal entry published after his death, he wrote above his desire to write a critique of his own theory. “Going through my notes brought this unease to consciousness. It’s been with me for years,” he wrote. “Meant to write & publish a self-actualization critique, but somehow never did. Now I think I know why.”
Maslow identified that his theory didn’t account for spiritual growth, and that he’d often mixed self-actualized traits with those of self-transcendence. His theory of peak experiences is deeply mystical in nature, and he linked these more to self-transcendence than self-actualization. He defined peak experiences as:
Rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.
So, it’s important to note that Maslow himself wanted to critique and expand his own theory to incorporate the spiritual elements of being.
Examples of self-actualization needs
Returning to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-actualization comes with its own set of needs. A misconception is that self-actualization is self-centered, or interested purely in the individual. This has been a common critique, although this isn’t the case. Perhaps due to Maslow’s mixing of self-actualization and self-transcendence, despite the name, the “higher” someone moves on the hierarchy, the more selfless they become.
This is the paradox of inner-work; in knowing and understanding yourself, you’re better able to better serve others. Not only that, but going through a process of self-actualization leads to more empathy and compassion.
In Motivation and Personality, Maslow explains the self-actualized experience similar to a German word invented by Albert Adler, gemeinschaftsgefühl. He said:
[Self actualized people] have for human beings in general a deep feeling of identification, sympathy, and affection in spite of the occasional anger, impatience, or disgust described below. Because of this they have a genuine desire to help the human race.
With that in mind, self-actualization needs are those that assist in someone reaching their fullest potential. They include self-fulfillment, the ability to seek personal growth, and peak experiences. This can be expressed specifically, such as an occupation or parenthood, or through creativity, in writing, or making art.
10 common characteristics of self-actualized people
Understanding the levels of needs is one thing, but what does self-actualization look like when embodied? In his research, Maslow explored the traits and characteristics of people he believed to be self-actualized.
Below is a refined list by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, which was used as a scale for a study in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology:
- Continued freshness of appreciation: the ability to experience pleasure, awe, and wonder with life’s day-to-day, by always finding novelty and a sense of newness.
- Acceptance: the full embrace of imperfections and flaws, in oneself and in others.
- Authenticity: staying true to one’s values and integrity, even when faced with difficult circumstances.
- Equanimity: being able to maintain composure when faced with life’s ups and downs.
- Purpose: a sense of a mission or higher purpose in one’s life.
- Efficient perception of reality: a desire to get closer to the truth of reality, rather than rest upon distortions of belief systems.
- Humanitarianism: an ability to empathize and wish to help humanity as a whole.
- Peak experiences: these include experiences of oneness and transcendence of personal concerns or problems.
- Good moral intuition: a strong connection to an internal sense of right or wrong, and the courage to stick to those morals.
- Creative spirit: this includes a childlike spontaneity and the ability to bring a creative attitude to work and play.
Remember, this isn’t a checklist to complete, but the byproduct of someone who is self-actualized. I say this, as the ego can hijack the process and attempt to mimic these traits in an inauthentic way (more on this in the tips on how to achieve self-actualization).
Historical examples according to Abraham Maslow
In his research, Maslow interviewed friends, colleagues, students, and case studies of historical figures. He eventually singled out a number of prominent names who display the characteristics of self-actualized people.
For example, Abraham Lincoln was noted for his use of humor. Albert Einstein’s piercing perception of the mysterious demonstrated an ability to move beyond personal wishes or desires to the true nature of reality.
Feminist social worker Jane Addams was noted as an exemplar of morality. The “father of American psychology,” William James, was lauded by Maslow for his ability to accept the fullness of the human experience — a trait that helped shape views on mental illness. In terms of peak experiences, Maslow pinpointed author and philosopher Aldous Huxley’s insatiable curiosity towards the mystical as a trait of self-actualization.
While there are more examples of people that Maslow considered to be self-actualized, these serve as real-life examples of what it means to be fully expressed in one’s potential. Maslow was careful to note that self-actualized people could be rich or poor, famous or obscure.
How to achieve it: 8 essential behaviors
After Maslow’s theory became widespread, he became concerned about the number of people self-identifying as self actualizers. Maslow noted that many people believed they were self-actualized when they weren’t.
This is a major criticism of the theory — people understand the concept of self-actualization, and move towards a preconceived idea. You could view this as an ego-identity of “being a self-actualized person”, ahead of the genuine path of growth. Self-actualization is unique to everyone and manifests in different ways. Taking this into account, if you are determined to grow, if you want to be one of the select few who reach genuine self-actualization, be wary of the ego’s tendency to create its own self-image ahead of an authentic expression.
I’d be remiss if I told you what follows is a step-by-step guide. In truth, allow the desire of self-actualization to be a North Star for a lifetime of commitment to becoming the fullest version of you, and that means vigilance, self-awareness, and a growth mindset are essential.
Below are eight suggestions on how to achieve self-actualization as outlined by the man himself, Maslow, in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature:
1. Be present
Unsurprisingly, Maslow noted that self-actualized people were able to move outside of their minds, and ego-centered needs, in order to be “experiencing fully, vividly, selflessly, with full concentration and total absorption.” Maslow notes that this form of presence alone is a “self-actualizing moment,” and this makes sense. When you’re fully present, that’s when your true self shines forth.
Of course, “be present” can be an empty platitude for most. It’s far from simple. To integrate this behavior into your life, tools such as mindfulness and meditation are useful. You could view this step as be-coming present. Over time, develop concentration and practice stilling the mind during a meditation practice.
Also, I find it useful to explore the things that stop you from being present. Are you distracted by future planning? A self-critical voice? Disconnection from your body? Explore what keeps you from being fully present, and look at ways to overcome these limitations.
2. Be aware of your choices
As Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” This naturally follows the first step; the more present you are, the more flexibility you have in your decision-making, as you’re not operating on autopilot or unconsciously.
Maslow categorized choices into progressive or regressive. As self-actualization is an ongoing process, every single choice is an option to choose growth over stagnation. “It means making each of the single choices about whether to lie or be honest, whether to steal or not steal at a particular point, and it means to make each of these choices as a growth choice,” Maslow notes.
Considering one study found we make 35,000 choices per day (a number that appears a little high, but indicates just how frequently we make “micro choices”) this has a profound impact. Again, self-awareness and presence help with this step by noting clearly when faced with a choice. Before making a decision, breathe, and think it through clearly.
3. Get to know yourself
Genuine self-actualization requires a deep understanding of what lies below the surface. Who are you, really? What are your deepest dreams and desires? What are your fears? Your triggers? Your blind spots? “A human being is not a tabula rasa, a lump of clay or Plasticine. He is something that is already there,” Maslow notes.
Each of us has a unique expression, a latent potential waiting to burst into life. Self-awareness and self-knowledge, therefore, are essential. Once you gain awareness of who you are, manifesting this is a significant challenge. For example, you might realize your career trajectory doesn’t feel aligned and a big life change is needed. Or you might realize your significant relationships are sustained more through obligation than genuine closeness.
This process requires self-honesty to embrace the difficult elements of yourself, and to know who you really are, what you really want. A regular journal practice, combined with meditation and self-inquiry, forms a solid foundation to start knowing yourself on a deeper level. And don’t forget about shadow work.
4. Be honest
Honesty applies to all others and the self. Although there are times to be diplomatic or polite (there’s such a thing as “prosocial lies” which are told for the benefit of others) Maslow equates honesty to responsibility. “In psychotherapy, one can see it, can feel it, can know the moment of responsibility,” Maslow notes. “Then there is a clear knowing of what it feels like. This is one of the great steps. Each time one takes responsibility, this is an actualizing of the self.”
Self-deceit is one of the greatest sticking points. I have a personal motto that has served me well over the years: choose ugly truths over beautiful lies. Ugly truths are difficult to digest, they may cause short-term pain, but over the long run contribute to growth and authenticity. As for beautiful lies, they keep us encased in a facade of superficiality.
Take time to consider: in what areas of life are you lying to yourself? Where are you allowing self-deceit in order to avoid taking responsibility?
5. Don’t worry about conforming
I’ve previously written about skilled niceness, and how people-pleasing is a huge barrier to growth. In the past, part of me wished everyone would like me. This desire has motivated inauthentic behavior and caused a lot of anxiety. It’s a form of denial, too, as it escapes the basic truth that not everyone will like you. In fact, Maslow goes as far as to say the willingness to be unpopular is a vital trait of self-actualization.
Many people, on some level, wish to innovate, to go against the grain. But how many of life’s greatest thinkers or revolutionaries were unpopular at the time? Operating against convention or the status quo isn’t easy. But self-actualization is a path of self-trust. The more in-tune you are with your intuition and authenticity, the easier it is to choose a path that is right for you, regardless of what anyone else thinks.
What areas of life are you holding yourself back due to a fear of being unpopular?
6. Self-actualize continuously
Your fullest potential is expressed moment-by-moment. Self-actualized people don’t reach an end-point and then sit back, fulfilled by the fact they’ve made it to this illustrious stage of self-development. Quite the opposite. “Self-actualization means using one’s intelligence,” Maslow notes. “It does not mean doing some far-out thing necessarily, but it may mean going through an arduous and demanding period of preparation in order to realize one’s possibilities.”
This gives an interesting take on self-actualization. You can almost view it as a responsibility, and a duty, to fully maximize your potential. World-Class performers, be it actors, musicians, or athletes, constantly push themselves, even after acclaim or streams of success. As Maslow notes, “self-actualization means working to do well the thing that one wants to do.”
What are you willing to give everything to? What potentials do you wish to follow?
7. Recognize peak experiences
“Peak experiences are transient moments of self-actualization. They are moments of ecstasy which cannot be bought, cannot be guaranteed, cannot even be sought,” Maslow notes. These feelings of wonder and joy, connection to something greater, those subtle shifts in perception make us fall in love with the beauty of life, and the miraculous on the doorstep.
Although peak experiences can’t be forced, Maslow notes that you can set up the right conditions to invite more of them into your life. These experiences point towards the path of self-actualization, they serve as a preview of the fullness of experience. How do you set up these conditions? For me, this involved a few radical shifts. It started with a consistent meditation practice, giving up alcohol, spending more time in nature, and connecting to the life I really, really wanted to live.
The more aligned I am to that true expression, the more I have peak experiences. Then, the more “data” I have to know what works for me, what sets up the conditions. I encourage you to do the same; reflect on those moments that take your breath away. What were you doing? Who were you being? How can you invite more of this into your life?
8. Be prepared to deal with psychopathology
“If the psychoanalytic literature has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that repression is not a good way of solving problems,” Maslow notes. The process of self-actualization, of journeying deep within to find out what your full potential is, comes with challenging terrain. There are times it won’t be easy, times you’ll want to choose an easier route, or times where deep-rooted trauma comes to the surface and you need extra support.
“[Self-actualisation] means identifying defenses, and after defenses have been identified, it means finding the courage to give them up,” Maslow notes. “This is painful because defenses are erected against something which is unpleasant. But giving up the defenses is worthwhile.”
This final step is another reminder of why so few people become self-actualized. Are you willing to lean into discomfort, in order to grow? Are you prepared to join the 1% on the path of self-actualization?
Self-compassion is strategic and necessary
Remember to be kind to yourself on this journey, and keep an approach of self-compassion. If the process becomes overwhelming, take a few steps back. But know that the path of growth is, as Maslow notes, absolutely worthwhile, for these defenses are only limitations to becoming the fullest version of who you are.